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Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Execution of Admiral John Byng: Ruthless Action that set the road to Royal Navy Dominance


World history is replete with thrilling tales and anecdotes. Many of them concern the army and navy.  One fact however emerges as a  common thread of the great powers is a ruthlessness to ensure that they remain at the apex. There is no place for piety or compassion, which has been the hallmark of the Hindu warriors. The British who ruled the waves through their navy were equally ruthless and gave no quarter to anyone who opposed or appeared to oppose the official British policy. It was always a do or die situation like the famous charge of the light brigade on the Russian guns in the Crimea, immortalized by Lord Tennyson in his poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade".
A similar situation arose in 1757 when the British admiralty executed an Admiral of the Royal Navy , who was accused of not obeying an order to attack the French fleet during the 7 year war between England and France from 1754-63.
The Admiral was John Byng. He was a decorated naval officer who was ordered to proceed with a force of 10 ships and seize the island of Minorca in the Mediterranean Sea. Minorca is a small island and during the 7-year war it had been occupied by the French. This was particularly galling to the English who felt that loss of the island to the French was a loss of face. It must be appreciated that in those days right from India to Europe the British and French were at daggers drawn as the pie was world domination.

Admiral Byng inspected his flotilla and observed the the ships needed repair and also the marines on board had been replaced by troops who were to garrison the island. The British had assumed that victory would be theirs and as such written orders were handed to Admiral Byng. The admiral had his doubts and suggested that the battle be postponed till the naval ships were ready, but he was overruled.
Admiral Byng now sailed for Minorca. Unfortunately the French were better prepared and in an ensuing battle the Royal Navy was worse off. Admiral Byng had no choice but to withdraw as he had suffered many casualties.  He sailed for Gibraltar , with a view to offload the wounded, get the ships repaired and then return for battle.  It was a sound military decision, but it did not go down well with the political bosses in London. At that time the Prime Minister of England was the great William Pitt. In addition the British public was aghast that their fabled navy had been worsted by the French.
Admiral Byng received a communication, not to proceed along with the flotilla to Gibraltar , but come to London. The Admiral had no inkling as to what was in store for him. He reached London and was promptly arrested and tried for "failure to engage the French".  The court martial commenced and Admiral Byng was held guilty and ordered to be executed by firing squad. The curtain came down on 14 March 1757, when Admiral Byng faced the firing squad. The execution was carried out on board his flagship.
The King of England could have pardoned Admiral Byng, but seeing the popular sentiment in England he refrained from doing so. It is understood that William Pitt was in favor of a pardon, but he also did not come out openly. This execution shows that one reason the Royal Navy dominated the globe and the seven seas was because of a ruthless projection of power, where failure had no place.  Just for the record, Robert Clive won a great victory in India in 1757 at Plassey and established British rule.